Australia 2016 Part 5:  The Great Barrier Reef

Thursday, July 28, 2016

We had a leisurely breakfast at the resort this morning since we had a civilized pickup time of 9:00 AM.  Our destination is the Great Barrier Reef.   We loaded up our masks and snorkels (after all, who wants to borrow someone else’s snorkel), gathered my waterproof camera and Greg’s GoPro, and waited by the bus stop.  Just before the bus was scheduled to arrive, I looked at Greg’s GoPro and asked, “Do you have the waterproof cover on it?”  A moment of panic came to Greg’s eyes, and he raced back to the room.  Of course, that’s when the bus pulled in.  Luckily the driver needed to get out of the bus for a moment, so we didn’t keep anyone waiting too long.  It was a short ride into Port Douglas.  We were traveling to the reef with Quicksilver.  They pride themselves as the gold standard Great Barrier Reef tour operator.  Their high-speed catamaran takes you to Agincourt Reef, where it ties up to a pontoon.  (Some of you may remember Agincourt Reef from the news years ago.  A dive boat operator miscounted the number of divers in its boat and left two Americans stranded in the water.  They were never seen again.  There was even a movie about it called “Open Water.”  Cheerful to think about, isn’t it?)  Anyway, you can hop right off the pontoon and snorkel, dive, or ride around in their semi-submersible vessel.  We were ready to hit the water.

Our bus dropped us at the port, where we checked in and got our tickets to ride.  Along the way, we were warned repeatedly by Quicksilver representatives that today was very windy and choppy.  Seasickness was “highly probable.”  (That’s true for me in the wave pool at Schlitterbahn.)  We were advised to take seasickness medicine which would be readily available on board the catamaran.

A little about the reef:  the Great Barrier Reef has over 2,600 individual reefs and 300 islands and is the largest complex of coral reefs in the world today.  It extends for over 1,200 miles along the northeastern coastline of Australia.  It’s larger than Great Britain and about half the size of Texas.  The entire reef has been run since 1975 as a marine park and is managed by an Australian governmental authority.  It made the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1981.  It boasts over 1,500 species of fish, 400 species of coral, 4,000 species of mollusks and tons of other creatures.  The reef system began forming approximately 6,000-7,000 years ago.  It is the largest living feature on earth and is the only one visible from space.  In other words, it’s a whopper.

When we got on board our catamaran, the ginger pills for seasickness were free, but the “good stuff” was being sold for a price of $3.50 Australian for two pills in a packet.  We paid for two packets, but I felt a little put off that we had to pay for medicine that they were shilling.  Virtually everyone was buying it, so Quicksilver was taking in a good bit of money before we even settled into our seats.

Here’s a photo of the sister catamaran, taken from the one we were on:

As I mentioned, I am no sailor.  I get seasick on any kind of boat on the ocean.  Greg, our Coast Guard veteran, helped us to choose a seat, facing forward and on the main deck, where rocking would be at a minimum.  I am guessing that the boat would hold about 450 people, and it was pretty crowded.  Here’s a shot from our seats:

If it moves and has a motor, Genene will go to sleep on it.  She had no trouble with seasickness, but perhaps the medicine made her sleepy.

When she woke up, we went out on deck.  It was windy and cloudy, and at times, it rained slightly.


The journey to the reef would take about 90 minutes.  We were all lucky.  The medicine worked for us, much to my amazement.  It was worth what we paid for it, in spite of my grumbling.  Tons of people were using the seasick bags, and the staff was busy carrying the full bags out of the main cabin.  I don’t know where they were going with them, and I don’t care.

Selling seasick pills was just the beginning of the Quicksilver QuickProfit plan.  They certainly have capitalism down to an art form, and we were all a captive audience aboard their vessel.  Shills came around to our table throughout the journey.  Would you like a Lycra suit?  It will help against jelly fish stings, even though it isn’t jelly fish season.  Rental price is $8.  Would you like to scuba dive?  Give us your credit card.  Would you like to rent an underwater camera for the day?  $50 and we will give you the SD card at the end of the day.  No thanks, no thanks, no thanks.

And then we did it:  we fell for the pitch made by the marine biologist.  They offered an hour-long, small group advanced tour of “areas of the reef where the other passengers can’t go.”  I’ve always thought a good guide can add so much to the experience, and the lycra suit was included.  What could go wrong?

The guides were all worried because Greg has a heart stent.  They kept telling him how strenuous the tour was.  They should not have worried about him.  They should have been interviewing me:  I’m the Arkansas landlubber.

The ship arrived and docked at the pontoon.  The biologist gave us a small paper map to tell us where to meet her on the pontoon, after we had gathered our fins, lycra suits, and optional wet suits for buoyancy.  We all took advantage of the wet suits.

Genene is suited up:

Snorkel?  Check.  Mask?  Check.

We are ready to launch.

Our small group of 10 (plus guide and lifeguard) went in the water and started paddling furiously.  I knew immediately that this was going to be a problem for me.  The seas were very rough.  Our guides had not insisted that we use the “buddy” system, but I had told Greg that we all had to keep track of each other.  That meant that I had two buddies, Greg and Genene.  Most of the time I couldn’t find either of them.  Everyone looked identical in their black lycra suits.  Our “biologist”, who was at least 15 years old, swam like a bat out of hell for about two minutes on the first leg.  I was frantically trying to keep up with her while keeping hubby and daughter in sight.  The biologist popped her head out of the water and babbled quickly at us over the roaring waves.  I couldn’t understand a word she said.  (I may not have been able to hear her over the beating of my frantic, fearful heart.)  After the third stop (about 10 minutes in), I felt completely desperate, bordering on panic.  I was not comfortable in the water.  I couldn’t see a freaking thing. I couldn’t hear a word the guide was saying.  All I did was worry about Genene, even though she seemed to be doing great.  I think I was projecting my own panic onto her.  At the next stop, I didn’t wait for the guide to start talking.  I said, “This is not for me!  I need help now!” I pulled the plug on the whole thing, and I wasn’t one bit ashamed.  I was saving my own life!

Greg and Genene wanted to continue and I let them!  I admonished Greg to “be her buddy,” and he promised me that he would keep her in his sight.  I grabbed the lifeguard noodle with no shame and let one of the staff members tow me in, leaving them to the rest of the tour on their own.  We really hadn’t gone very far, but in my panicked mind’s eye, we were out in the open water all alone.  My lifeguard made sure I was okay as she dropped me at the pontoon.  I assured her that I was fine and just need a few moments, and she set back out to catch up with the tour.  I sat on the pontoon and gathered myself.  After a couple of minutes of sitting, I got in the water and floated around, dead-mans-float style.

The Great Barrier Reef is indeed beautiful, but I think I was spoiled by the last year’s tour to the mostly gentle waters of the Galapagos.  Also, I think we caught the Great Barrier Reef on a not-so-great day, because it was not spectacular to my mind.

I floated around calmly and got some good pictures.  Oddly enough, my anxiety was much lower when I did not have to worry about Genene or Greg.  I knew that they were safe with one another.  The snorkel area off the pontoon was very crowded, and I spent as much time dodging fins as looking at the reef.  Perhaps on a calmer day, going with the small tour would have been a good idea and not a disaster.


After about 40 minutes, Greg and Genene returned, and I went out part of the way to meet them.  They told me that the rest of the tour went pretty much like the first ten minutes–furious paddling followed by incoherent babbling.  They didn’t learn much and were sorry that they had no time to self-explore. Also, I wasn’t the only quitter.  The group started with 10 but by the time the tour was over, about 5 remained.

We paddled through the big group of snorkelers and sat back on the edge of the pontoon.  Where did Genene go?  She was there just a second ago.  At the beginning of the tour, our guides had told us that we had to sign out as soon as the tour was complete.  I guess they pay a little more attention to their headcounts after losing those two pesky Americans back in the day.  Anyway, we were sitting on the edge of the pontoon looking for Genene, and the lifeguard (the same lady who towed me in) said, rather robot-like, “Greg and Lori need to sign back in.”  We acknowledged her request but replied, “We can’t seem to find our daughter.  Have you seen her?”  The lifeguard said that she had not and didn’t seem concerned about that.  Then she repeated, “Greg and Lori need to sign back in.”  That peeved me greatly (first of all because it seemed a little odd for her to address us by our names while looking right at us) and I snapped, “I’m not signing anything or leaving the water until I see Genene.”  We kept scanning the water, but of course, everyone in black lycra and wetsuits looks the same, and we were literally looking at hundreds of face-down bodies floating in the water.  After a few moments of elevated anxiety, we found Genene out of the water on the pontoon.  Ever the rule-follower, she had gone to the clipboard to sign herself back in. We were a little annoyed with her.  She wants to be self-sufficient, and we want to keep looking after her as if she is a little girl.  She is our little girl.  All’s well that ends well, and I was glad to be rid of the Stepford Wife robo-lifeguard too.

Back to my decision to quit the tour for a moment.  I actually think that my decision, though made in panic, turned out better in terms of reef-viewing.  I saw more of the reef than Greg and Genene did.  They did get to touch a sea cucumber and saw some giant clams.  Ho hum, says me.  Not worth drowning for!

We barely had time for a quick lunch, and we all returned to the snorkel area as a family for a few minutes.  We all wished we had more time.  We never even got to ride in the sub.

By 2:30, it was time to make our way back to the pontoon.  We had scheduled a special ride back to land.  No more catamaran full of puking people for us.  I felt a little like James Bond.  Can you see our ride?

During our short boat ride from the pontoon to the helicopter platform, our guide strapped on a life-preserver.  His advice was simple:  don’t get near the whirling tail of the copter.

We gave Genene the front seat:

Each of us wore a headset, and the microphone was voice-activated.  This was a little disconcerting because I like to gripe about everything sotto voce, and my every wheedle would be broadcast.  Plus you could hear yourself talk through the headphones, always disconcerting.  I soon learned to cope by whining less.  Genene and Greg probably appreciated that.

As soon as we were all in our seats with the doors closed, the pilot lifted us into the air without fanfare or delay.  What an awesome feeling it was to go straight up, up, up!

The reef was gorgeous from the air.

Can you see the stingray?  We also spotted many turtles.  We asked our pilot to look for whales, but he said they would be scarce this time of year.

The helicopter ride turned out to be my favorite part of the day, because you could really get an idea of the enormity of the reef from the air.  In fact, I would say the helicopter saved the day, in terms of leaving me with a positive impression of the reef.  I would have considered the day a bust if it had not been for our flight.  Perhaps I was a bird in a prior life.  I definitely was not a fish.

Can you see why they call this Snapper Island?

We saw the Daintree River from the air.

The waves rippled to the shore like lace.


Port Douglas sat below us, pretty as a postcard.

Our pilot set us down gently in a grassy field.  A car was waiting to take us back to Port Douglas.

One thing we hadn’t realized was that we would have time to kill.  We were taking the communal transport bus back to our hotel, and it wasn’t going to leave until the boat got back.  Obviously, we traveled faster in our little bubble (thank God; I can’t imagine sitting on that boat for 90 more minutes).

We found a bar at the port and settled in to wait for the slowpokes (or should I say slowpukes?) to return.


The sun came out, and we relaxed until we saw the catamaran coming in.  We got on the Thala Beach bus and headed for “home.”  I am happy to check Great Barrier Reef off my bucket list.  I do not need to do it again.

We asked for the earliest possible dinner reservations at the resort.  Greg drank his fancy James Boag beer while I enjoyed an Australian red wine.  We were celebrating:  we didn’t drown at the Great Barrier Reef!

We are looking forward to a quiet day tomorrow.  There is nothing on our itinerary, so we are turning off the alarms and sleeping in.  I hope I don’t dream of sharks or fast-talking marine biologists.

Australia 2016 Part 4: Daintree Rainforest

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

We had early breakfast at the hotel.  The view is awesome:

Our pickup was for 7:20 AM,  and we were met by the most stereotypical Australian man I ever hope to see.  Tall, blonde, khaki-clad, with a crocodile tooth necklace, shorts and hiking boots–he personified Crocodile Dundee.  His name was Rick, and he was also carrying a trainee, a middle-aged bloke named Darren.

We had one other family to pick up at the QT Hotel in Port Douglas.  A young couple and their two children climbed aboard the van, and we exchanged introductions and pleasantries.  They asked us where we were from and we told them Houston.  They laughed.  “So are we!”  They were from the Spring Branch area.  It’s a small world!

It was a short trip in the car to the waters of the Daintree River, where we were to have our very own crocodile cruise.  Rick talked non-stop on the drive and was a wealth of information about Australian history, both political and natural.  The Daintree Rainforest is yet another World Heritage site.  The Australians did not even realize how special it was until very recently, and areas of the forest were often cleared for farming without permit or fanfare.   In the 1970’s, a  farmer’s cattle became ill.  Something was poisoning them, and it was a very mysterious affair.  After a lot of sleuthing, it was determined that the cattle were eating the seed of a plant called Ideospermum Australiense.   The heck you say?  What’s so special about that?  Well, scientists had previously thought that this angiosperm had been gone from earth for 100 million years, but there it was, thriving in the Daintree, along with many other plant species found nowhere else on earth.  The entire area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, and efforts have been undertaken to reclaim some of the areas used by farmers.  Walking around in this rainforest is like taking a step backwards in time to the Land of the Lost.  I kept looking for a Sleestak.

The traditional custodians of the land were the aboriginal people known as the eastern Kuku Yalanji, and they still subsist on these tribal lands and consider them sacred.  They know exactly which plants can be eaten, used for medicine, and made into utensils, weapons, and shelter.  We did not meet any of these people.  Rick told us that they were small in stature, thus adapted to their rainforest surroundings, much as the pygmy people.  Perhaps the small body size benefits their life in rainforests. For instance, even though rainforests are very diverse ecosystems, they do not really have that much food for humans.  Small body sizes, therefore, may have evolved because they require fewer calories.  Rick also explained to the kids that taller individuals have more difficulty moving through the dense vegetation of tropical rainforests. Finally, the Daintree is hot and humid, and everyone who lives in Houston knows that humidity makes it difficult for sweat to evaporate and cool people down. Since small bodies generate less heat during activity, they could survive more easily.  You see–short people really do have a reason to live!  Suck it, Randy Newman!

We pulled the van up to the Daintree River, where a boat was waiting for us.  It looked a bit like my brother’s old covered lake barge.  There were rows of seats in  the middle, and our two families had plenty of room to spread out.  Our captain was a rougher looking bloke than Crocodile Rick, sporting  a couple of days’ growth of beard and the ruddy, sunburned face of every middle-aged Australian.  I’ll bet their dermatologists do big business.

Ostensibly, we were there to see all sorts of wildlife, but I wanted to see the man-eaters, the saltwater crocodiles.  The Aussies have pet names for everything, and they call these guys “salties.”  It makes them sound so cute, doesn’t it?

The saltwater crocodile is the largest of all living reptiles, as well as the largest terrestrial and riparian predator in the world.  As its name implies, this species of crocodile can live in marine environments, but can usually be found in saline and brackish mangrove swamps, estuaries, deltas, lagoons, and lower stretches of rivers. They have the broadest distribution of any modern crocodile, ranging from the eastern coast of India, throughout most of Southeast Asia, and northern Australia.  The saltwater crocodile is a formidable and opportunistic  predator. Most prey are ambushed and then drowned or swallowed whole. It is capable of prevailing over almost any animal that enters its territory, including humans.   Due to their size, aggression and distribution, saltwater crocodiles are regarded as the most dangerous extant crocodilian to humans.  So says Wikipedia.

Greg spotted a crocodile in the water before Captain Ruddyface (sorry, I never got his name) even got the boat underway.  Greg had clearly brought his safari eyes.  Captain R said, “Good going, Mate!”


Captain R introduced us to this juvenile crocodile:

We floated down the Daintree, scanning the trees and shoreline for wildlife.

Can you see the snake in the tree?

I believe this fellow is some kind of a kingfisher:

Another snake in a tree!

Another crocodile youngster.  He looks like he is smiling for the camera.

This baby blends right into the brown mud.

Mom Croc hangs out nearby her babies.   A female croc lays between 40 and 60 eggs.  A lot of these won’t hatch, and even fewer will make it to adulthood.  The female crocs are fiercely protective of the offspring, but in spite of Mom’s care, only about 1% of her hatchlings will make it to adulthood.  Captain R knew this girl by name and could tell us exactly how many of her babies had survived the year.  She lost quite a few to flooding and predators.

Next we saw this larger fellow basking at the shoreline.

Grandma, what big teeth you have!

This fellow was the Grand Mac-Daddy of the tour.  I wasn’t getting into the photo for scale, but he was between 12 and 15 feet long.  Darren and Rick said they had seen him eat a dog just last week.

Come a little closer, Lassie!

We took a family photo at the end of the boat tour.

Our boat took us to the other side of the Daintree River, where Rick was waiting for us with the van.  We drove into the rainforest.  Our itinerary called for a rainforest walk, but first Rick and Darren fixed us a little tucker.  A light rain was falling, and we found a covered picnic table where they set up the morning’s snacks.  We had hot tea and coffee, and Rick invited us all to suck and chew  on a bit of sugar cane.  It was crunchy and sweet, of course.  He also introduced us to the traditional dessert of Australia, lamington.  Lamington is a sweet dessert,  made with squares of sponge cake coated in an outer layer of chocolate sauce and rolled in coconut.  Greg isn’t much for sweets.  He’s more of a grease and salt guy.  Genene and I really enjoyed it.

We took a walk through the rainforest.

We were caught by surprise.  The slow drizzle turned into a steady rain.  I felt so foolish.  After  all, it is a RAINFOREST.  I should have come prepared!  We had brought rain gear to Australia, and none of us thought to pack it for today’s outing.  Rookies!    Rick had some umbrellas for us to share, but we got pretty wet and I had to put my good camera away so that it wouldn’t be ruined.   We saw an Australian water dragon on a tree. Rick got so excited that I thought he was going to wet himself.  I thought of Steve Irwin.  He used to get so excited about wildlife, and that kind of enthusiasm is infectious.  We gawked at the lizard as if it were a dinosaur.

We were also hunting for the rare flightless bird, the cassowary.  It’s the third largest bird in the world, surpassed in size only by  ostriches and emus.  The cassowary is endangered and there are less than 1,000 left in the wild.  Rick cautioned us quite a bit about how to act if we spotted the bird because it is quite dangerous.  It has a strong talon-like three-inch claw on its leg.  When threatened, it will attack by jumping and thrusting its feet.  It can disembowel a man.  Rick told us several stories about fatal encounters with these birds, and his description reminded me a bit of the tale told about velociraptors in Jurrassic Park.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a cassowary in the wild, but in the end, I was disappointed that we didn’t.

The buzz throughout today’s tour, at least among the guides, involved a lady from New Zealand (a kiwi) who had been eaten by a croc a few months ago.  The guides were universally judgmental of her and unsympathetic about her demise.  Captain R shrugged his shoulders and said, “She didn’t follow directions.”  He even seemed angry that the game wardens actually try to track down the offending croc.  “It’s not his fault.  He is just doing what he does.  It’s the woman’s fault!”  Rick was a little more circumspect.  He ran it down for us:  “There are four things that could have happened to her because of her bad judgment.  First of all, she was drunk.  She could have just had an accident.  Second, she went swimming during stinger season.  She could have been killed by a poisonous jellyfish.  Third, she could have just drowned.  Fourth, the croc could have killed her.”    Rick declared triumphantly, “The croc won!”  This is dangerous country, and the penalty for foolish behavior can be instant death.

Before lunch, we asked our new Houston friends where their kids went to school:  Awty, the same school that Genene attends!  The small world got a little smaller.  Their daughter, Rebecca, is starting sixth grade, the grade that Genene just finished.  Genene spent the rest of the trip advising her young protegé about all her classes and teachers.

We drove on up to Cape Tribulation, so named by British navigator Lieutenant James Cook in 1770 after his ship, the Endeavor, scraped a reef northeast of the cape.  Cook steered away from the coast into deeper water but  the ship ran aground. The ship stuck fast and was badly damaged, desperate measures being needed to prevent it from foundering until it was refloated the next day. Cook recorded, “…the north point [was named] Cape Tribulation because here begun all our troubles.”

Along the drive, we all enjoyed the artistry of some unknown comic, who had taken an ordinary speed hump sign (below) and spruced it up a bit.

We stopped at a rest stop, and I admired their waste management technique.  It smelled pretty ripe out here.  As many of you know, my job involves representing water districts, so I get to do a lot of talking about water and sewer issues.  (Do you think I can write this trip off on my income taxes now, since I educated myself about their sewer handling?)

We took a wet walk on the beach at Cape Tribulation.

Rick explained how mangroves get their water.  One interesting fact:  their roots are capable of absorbing salty water.  The tree then pushes the salt out into a few leaves, which turn yellow and fall off.  These leaves are sacrificial.

Genene did her best mangrove impression.


These Australian brushturkeys wandered along the shoreline. They build large communal nests on the ground made of leaves, other combustible material and earth, up to 4.5 feet high and up to 13 feet across. The eggs are hatched by the heat of the composting mound, which is tended only by the males who regulate the temperature by adding or removing material in an effort to maintain the temperature of the mound in the 91–95 °F incubation temperature range.  When the eggs hatch, the chicks are on their own.

The kiwi woman obviously didn’t read this sign.  She was too drunk!

She missed this one too!  Doesn’t the beach seem inviting?

Most of the beaches have a bottle of vinegar, even though its efficacy in treating jellyfish stings is debated.  Rick said that they have to dye the vinegar blue to discourage people from using it on their fish and chips.


Our next stop was lunch, and we stopped at a delightful little restaurant/animal refuge.  Lunch was included in the price of the tour, and Rick advised us that the tour would even pay for “first shout,” the first round of drinks.  Any more drinks would be on your own ticket.  We weren’t tempted to drink much because with the lingering jet lag, it would have put us to sleep.  We had one sociable wine and beer each.

Genene spent the lunch advising new friend of classes and teachers she will have in sixth grade at Awty.  Genene was so happy to have someone her own age to talk with.  She really came alive.  She knows that she is lucky that she gets to travel the world, but she is at the age where her parents have become extremely boring and nerdy.  (I think we were always extremely boring and nerdy.  She has just gotten old enough to realize it.)

This resident python was coiled in a tree in the front of the restaurant.  I was reminded of Kaa from the Jungle Book.  I kept waiting for it to whisper, “Mowgli.”

Rick struck a pose in front of a life-size statue of a cassowary.  I am not sure what we would have done if we had encountered that thing on the trail.

The animal refuge rehabilitates animals that are injured.  If possible, they are released back into the wild.  Some become permanent residents of the refuge.  This is an agile wallaby:

Genene is feeding the swamp wallaby as the agile wallaby stands nearby.  The swamp wallabies were pretty tame and allowed us to pet them behind their heads at the shoulders.  The agile wallaby took the food and immediately hopped away.


Swamp wallaby eating a sweet potato:

The agile wallaby finally let me creep up pretty close:  “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Rick persuaded one of the resident rainbow lorikeets to sit on his shoulder and eat bits of watermelon out of his hand.

After lunch, we made a stop at a small fruit orchard, whose sole purpose is to supply fruit for the sorbet and ice cream made on site.  It looked a lot like the peach orchards of Howard County, Arkansas, and I thought of Daddy.  Genene and I bought cups of the delicious cream.  You don’t get to choose:  they serve you four scoops of whatever is on hand that day.  Davidson plum, wattle seed (an edible seed of the acacia tree), coconut and mango were the flavors of the day.  They were all so different.  Genene’s favorite was the wattle seed.  I couldn’t choose a favorite.

Toward the end of our tour, we stopped at the Alexandra Range Lookout.  We had a spectacular view of the mouth of the Daintree River.


We had completed all of our scheduled stops and now just had the long drive back to Port Douglas.  Rick continued to impart information about the rainforest. Of particular interest to me was the discussion about  the cane toad.  The cane toad is not native to Australia but was introduced in the hopes that it would kill the cane beetle, a pest that plagued the sugar cane crops.  Australia has a bad record with introducing non-native species.  Rabbits, house cats and foxes have all been brought in, with disastrous results.  Anyway, as you may imagine, the cane toad  didn’t do a thing to stop cane beetles, but the toad has been prolific.  Without a natural predator, it has become a huge problem.  Eradication programs have not been successful, though people often take measures into their own hands.  Rick said that as a boy, he would take a flashlight and kill up to 80 toads a night.  Their skin produces a toxin, so they do not make good eating.  Some people like to lick their skins and get a dangerous high, and  Darren told us that his dog loves to do this too.  He said the dog grabs the toads in his mouth and squeezes them.  He claimed his dog was addicted and then said, “The flashbacks are bloody hell.  Two days later, he will run around the house like crazy.”  I actually suspected that Darren might be having us on a bit, so later I went back and googled the subject of dogs and cane toads.  Sure enough, there is an entire youtube sub-genre on this subject.  If you have three minutes of your life to waste, this clip is very funny.  It starts slow, but keep watching:

Dobbie the Dog gets high on cane toad

By late afternoon our van pulled to a stop as we waited for the iconic Daintree Rainforest Ferry, which is the way in and out of the forest.  (Rick had crossed over it in the van by himself that morning while we were on our boat ride.). Rick saw fruit bats in the trees, and we all piled out of the stopped van to get a closer look:

I looked at him.  He looked at me.  Neither of us liked what we saw.

We rode the ferry across, and Rick told us the other local scuttlebutt.  Recently a man had driven off the ferry while it was in the middle of the river.  The man simply had what Rick described as a “brain fade.”  He was talking to someone else on the ferry and got distracted.  That would be a bad day!

Back on the road, Rick decided to make one more stop.  He knew where we could see a green ant nest in a tree, and he tapped the green leafy ball and watched them roil out.

He told us that the aboriginal people eat these ants, and their little “ends” have a good taste.  He offered to let us try one and promised that the ant would not be harmed.  We were all game to try.  Rick would catch the ants gently by their heads and abdomens and position the “tail” toward our tongues.  We were told to keep our tongues moist, and he touched the ants to our tongues one by one.  The taste was tart, something akin to a lemon and a Granny Smith apple.  I was amazed.  Rick said, “You can go home tonight and say to your friends, ‘You won’t believe what I did today.  I licked an ant’s butt.'”  Darren quickly retorted, “Imagine it from the ant’s perspective.  He’s going to go back to the nest tonight and say, ‘You’re not gonna believe what happened to me today!'”

Rick told us about a few words that don’t mean the same thing in America as they do in Australia.  For instance, a fanny is a vagina in the land Down Under.  So if you talk about your fanny pack or tell someone to move their fanny, expect some odd looks.  “Rooting for” is the Aussie colloquial for “having sex with.”  So if you ask an Aussie who they are rooting for, they aren’t going to say “Arkansas Razorbacks.”  They are going to say, “None of your business, mate!”  A rubber is an eraser.  This one works the other way.  If an Aussie asks an American to borrow a rubber, the American may raise an eyebrow.  Likewise for thongs, which in Australia are simply flip-flops. Rick said he got in a bit of hot water on a tour once when he said, “Girls, we are at the beach.  You can take off your thongs and go in the water.”

It was late afternoon when we said our goodbyes to Rick and Darren.  Genene traded emails and phone numbers with her new Awty friends and is looking forward to seeing them on the first day of school.  We got back to the hotel and peeled off our damp clothes.  We took care of one item of housekeeping.  Genene’s roll away bed was like a glorified cot with metal springs.  Every time she turned over last night, it squeaked horribly like the Second Coming and woke me out of my sleep.  I am a light sleeper on any day, and I didn’t want to listen to that racket for two more nights.  I talked with the front desk and asked for a new cot that didn’t squeak.  I got an odd look.  Apparently a “cot” is a baby bassinet in Australia, and the lady couldn’t imagine why Genene would need that.  We finally communicated, and they quickly sent a new roll away bed with nice, quiet wooden slats.

We had dinner at the hotel.  The seafood is fresh and delicious.  We had tuna and a lamb neck, which was also savory and delightful.  We were exhausted  by 8:00 PM.  We are visiting in Australia’s winter, so the sun goes down sometime after 6:00 PM.  By dinner’s end, it was pitch dark and to us it felt like midnight.

We went straight back to our room and began assembling our gear for tomorrow’s activities.  Mask?   Check!  Snorkel?  Check!  Swimsuit?  Check!  Sunscreen?   Check!

Tomorrow…the Great Barrier Reef!

Australia 2016 Part 3:  We’re Moving! (Sydney to Cairns and on to Port Douglas)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

We were wiped out last night and went to bed by 8:30 PM.  I didn’t need any sleep aid to drift off, even though there was a party going on right outside our window.  In fact, we could peer out our window and down onto the patrons.  If the window hadn’t been there, we could have spat in their drinks.  We weren’t even tempted.

We awoke at 1:00 AM with a start.  Greg’s phone was ringing.  The caller id pegged it as someone from Clarewood House, where his mother is convalescing after having broken her shoulder.  That worried us a bit, and it took us some time to hear from Greg’s sister.  It was only Clarewood’s front office calling to say they were rescheduling one of the periodic family meetings to discuss Essie’s progress.  They had no way of knowing where we were and that there was a 15 hour time difference.  We were relieved it was nothing more serious.  We split a sleep aid and went back to bed.

We are leaving for Port Douglas via Cairns today, but our flight was scheduled for the civilized hour of 12:30 PM.  That meant that we could sleep late, have a leisurely breakfast and finish packing.  Breakfasts at Pier One are marvelous.  They have fresh fruits, hot bacon, eggs made as you like, yogurt, cereal, a hash brown with some secret ingredients that we never could get the chef to share–you name it!  I had a passion fruit that was so succulent.  Greg learned how to order coffee.  If you want coffee with cream, you say, “Long black with cream.”  The coffee here is strong and delicious.  Yesterday our guide (the Ormsome Orm) told us that Starbucks could not make a go of it in Sydney because everyone here is a coffee snob, and the small shops do it so much better than our ubiquitous Seattle chain.

We finished packing, and we were pleased that the same driver who picked us up from the airport was here to take us back. He was an Australian of Indian descent, and he is proud of his country and anxious to give tips about things to see and do.  I love it when you get a talkative driver.  They generally have the best advice about good places to eat, secret tips and tricks, and so on.   He also told us some pretty incredible tales about some of his casino clients.  Australians love to gamble, and casinos are everywhere.  Where there are gamblers, there are Chinese nationals.  (Last year, we ran into many Chinese people in a casino in Myanmar.). Anyway, back to our driver.  His company has a private jet that flies in Chinese high rollers for three-day junkets in the casinos.  Typically the man gambles, while the limousine driver takes the wife and family on shopping trips.  To ride on the private jet, all you need is $5 million (Australian dollars, each worth about $0.80 US) to gamble.  Our driver told us that his clients tell him that the casino life is all about the thrills.  He told of one young man who laughed at having lost $87,000 in one morning’s gambling.  The driver couldn’t see the fun in that, and neither could we.  To each his own.

Airport security was a civilized breeze.  The lines were not long.  We got to keep our shoes and watches on, and no one took away our water.  The Australian security screeners were friendly, a marked change from their American counterparts, who appear to be selected on their ability to be surly and unhelpful.  My accent tends to generate some questions.  One gentleman asked me where I was from, and I told him that I was from the states, particularly Arkansas.  He said, “Oh yes, they’ve been having a lot of bush fires there.  The smoke has made it all the way to Las Vegas.”  I think he is thinking of California, but I can’t blame him.  I don’t know my Australian geography for beans, so I can’t laugh at him for confusing Arkansas with California.

Our flight boarded on time.  Qantas has an app that streams videos onto your iPhone, so Genene disappeared into anime and Greg read while I blogged.

The airport in Cairns (pronounced Cannes, like the French city known for its film festival) was small and efficient.  Cairns is on the northeast coast of Australia, in tropical Queensland.  It began as a gold mining and sugar export town but is now famous as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, a place we will visit in upcoming days.  We wouldn’t see more than the Cairns airport, since we were driving on up to Port Douglas.  Our driver– a middle-aged man of Japanese descent named Sam–was able to meet us in baggage claim and help us wrestle our bags to our car.  Along the ride, we saw our first kangaroos in a field in the distance.  I did not have my camera out so I missed the shot.  I’m sure there will be more.

Sam told us that he spent time in Los Angeles as an exchange student.  He never mentioned how he or his ancestors made their way to the land Down Under.  He warned us that road to Port Douglas was full of turns, but I thought it was pretty tame.  It wasn’t as bad as the Pig Trail in north Arkansas, and it certainly did not compare to some of the Tuscan roads in terms of hairpin curves.  The drive was very scenic, but there wasn’t much room for error or you could end up in the ocean.  We stopped at a scenic overlook.

Sam violates basic photography rules by facing us directly into the sun.  It couldn’t be helped.  That’s where the sun and the view were!


We arrived at our resort in late afternoon.  We are staying in Thala Beach reserve.  It’s beautiful here.  Each “room” is actually an individual bungalow built on stilts with impressive views of the rainforest canopy and the ocean.  We get at least one free day with no planned activities.  I plan to stroll around to the beach and nature preserves.

The reception area:

The dining room, with an ocean view, where we will take our meals:

We spotted our first kookaburra in the tree just outside our room.  Everyone in Nashville, Arkansas will remember singing a round about him in Mrs. Cowling’s music class:  “Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree.  Merry, merry king of the bush is he.  Laugh, kookaburra, laugh kookaburra, Gay your life must be!”  I have many fond memories of the songs we sang in her class, and I always looked forward to going.  I think Genene missed out on that experience.  She had a music class, but she had to share that time period with computers, art, and a bunch of other ancillary work.  I think we had more unstructured time in school as children.  Our curriculum was less varied, but the things we did seemed a lot more fun and there was less emphasis on testing and performance.  Heck, we didn’t even have computers to learn about!  Anyway, here’s the merry, merry king of the bush:

This is the view from our room!  The balcony is actually in the treetops of the rainforest.  You can hear the ocean waves crashing.  I could sit and stare at it for hours.

The resort is a good distance from Port Douglas, and transportation is an issue.  We will need to ride a bus if we want to go into town.  We were content to eat dinner at the hotel, and we did not suffer.  Meals are a multi-course affair, and Australian beers and wines are readily available.  Fresh seafood is a staple, and there is even a crocodile curry dish on the menu that we will have to try.

After dinner, we made our way slowly back through the lobby and found to our delight that a wallaby was taking her snacks at the guest seating area.  We found out that her name is Apple the Wallaby, and she even has her own hashtag.  #AppletheWallaby. Here she is wishing her fans a Merry Christmas:

 

We are going to like this place!

Australia 2016 Part 2:  A Day in Sydney

Monday, July 25, 2016

We were all pretty tuckered out and slept well last night.  I took an Ambien to help me adjust to the new time zone.  I never sleep well anyway, so those sleep aids come in pretty handy for me.  In my life at home, I ration the medicine very strictly.  On vacation, I try to use a few of them on the first nights to help ease the jet lag.  I slept from 10 PM to 4 AM, a really good night for me.  From 4 to 6 AM, I worked on the first blog, discovering to my dismay that my beloved Blogsy app was a deader.  I’m working through the WordPress app, and I’ve only accidentally published a draft twice now!  I’ll get it figured out.

Our schedule called for an all-day private tour of Sydney, so we needed a big country breakfast to kick off the day.  Our hotel–Pier One–is ideally situated on–you guessed it–the first pier in Sydney Harbour.  In its first life, the building was a warehouse but has been spectacularly converted.  It sits in the shadow of the Harbour Bridge with easy access to the trendy Rocks district.  We can watch the boats out our window.  I say all that to say, man, their breakfast is good.  We poked in the grub, gathered our gear and went downstairs.

Our guide Orm met us at just a couple of minutes past 9:00 AM.  He apologized for being tardy, but we were not worried.  Genene was happy to sit in the lobby and catch Pokemon.

First Orm took us to the Sydney Opera House, where we were to meet a private guide and get a tour of the Opera House interior.  Our guide was a middle-aged German lady who operated with stereotypical German efficiency.  Henceforth, she will be known only as the Opera House Nazi.   Apparently we were late, but we could not have been more than 5 minutes behind schedule.  She pounced upon us as soon as we walked up and whisked us away from Orm at lightning speed.  Since it was a private tour, I had hoped we would have more flexibility.  It was not to be.  She raced us through the interiors.  I was literally out of breath for much of the tour.  After each canned spiel, she would ask us if we had any questions and then cut us off in mid-question.  She asked us what we were seeing while we were in Australia and then interrupted Greg in mid-sentence, cut him off and told us it was time to keep moving.  I am not sure whose schedule she was on but it was not ours.    She was not my cup of tea.

The tour of the interior of the Opera House was interesting nonetheless.  We saw the bowels of the place and all the gear it takes to change stages and sets.  The amount of lights, stage equipment, props, etc was mind-boggling.  The only thing I can compare it to is the inside of a vast warehouse with people and equipment movers everywhere.  Photographs were not allowed in the stage areas or in the “working” areas of the Opera House, so you will have to settle for my description.  The stages were nothing extraordinary to my mind, though the organ in the big hall was a whopper, and I’ll bet my friend Gary Smith would love to play it.  The Opera House looks best from the outside.

Here’s the view of the Harbour Bridge from the Opera House.  Sydneysiders affectionately call it “The Coathanger.”

The inside of the Opera House has impressive views of the sky and harbour, though the purple carpet is a bit over the top!

The box office area looks pretty ordinary.

People inside the Opera House  must be accompanied at all times by a guide with a badge.  Our guide described an “incident” from a few years ago.  A deliveryman was leaving a package for the stage director.  His escort took a phone call and let the deliveryman proceed alone for a few minutes.  He took a wrong turn and ended up on stage in the middle of a Shakespeare play in front of a packed house.  Luckily the production was modernized so that the actors were in contemporary clothing.  The actors ad-libbed about the package delivery, got the guy off the stage, and the audience was none the wiser.

Let’s back up and talk about genesis of the Opera House.  In 1954, the government of Sydney selected a committee to advise them on the building of an opera house.  Sydney wanted to be considered a cosmopolitan world city, and they needed a signature showpiece building for performance art.  A competition was held.  233 submissions came in from the world over, and in 1956, the committee selected the design of a 36-year-old Dane named Joern Utzon.   His design was influenced by a ship’s billowing sails, palm fronds and Mayan ruins.  It was bold and unique.    Utzon’s design was purely architectural.  In other words, he did not consult with a structural engineer to see that it could actually be built.  Details.

Engineers struggled for years with various challenges that related to fabricating and supporting the sails.  Apparently the idea for the solution came to Utzon one day while peeling an orange.  The shells could be constructed from segments of a single sphere.  Thus the concrete ribs of the building could be prefabricated in a few molds, hoisted in position, and joined together.  Voila!  The project was originally projected to cost $7 million and take 4 years to construct.  In the end, it cost over $102 million and took 15 years to build.  Politicians solved the problem of financing by holding a lottery to raise funds.  Sadly, Utzon was so embittered by the fighting and ego trips associated with the construction that he quit the project, left the country and never saw his masterpiece in person.   A committee of architects did their best to finish the project and honor the design of Utzon.   Years later, Utzon was commissioned to complete an interior room, and he did this.  By this time, he was not in good health and could not return, but perhaps he managed to set some bitterness aside.  His building achieved World Heritage status while he was still living, so the story isn’t all sad.  He died in 2008 at age 90, and the prime minister of Australia ordered the flags on the Harbour Bridge to be flown at half-mast and the lights of the Opera House to be dimmed as a sign of respect.

The exterior of the Opera House is covered with 1,056,000 self-cleaning cream-colored Swiss tiles.  Some of them are matte and some are glossy.  This means that the Opera House will look different in different lighting situations.

Our tour called for us to see the Utzon room, and our guide talked about it but I guess she decided that we weren’t worthy.  She talked about it but never showed it to us.    (Opera House Nazi says, “No Utzon room for you!”)  When we reached the gift shop, we all bolted for the rest room.  There’s nothing like several cups of coffee followed by a run up and down 200 steps to get the system going.  Our guide wouldn’t even wait for us to come out of the bathroom and took her leave of us then and there.  It was only later that we realized that we missed the Utzon room.  Ah well.  Auf widersehen….NOT!

Orm was waiting patiently.  He told us there was no need to rush.  This was our day, our tour, and our pace.  Whew!  We liked him instantly.  He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Australian history, and he sprinkled bad jokes throughout his tour, earning him instant love from Greg and Genene.
He drove us around the city, stopping at various vantage points to show us the spectacular views of Sydney.


We learned a little about the history of the aboriginal people, whose sad legacy mirrors the American experience  with Native Americans.  Aboriginal people have the longest continuous human history and civilization.  Their heritage has existed uninterrupted for 50,000 years.  When white people (or as aboriginal people say, “whitefellas”) came to Australia, there were over 600 aboriginal “nations” with just as many dialects.  To me it sounds very similar to our Native Americans, who were not monolithic–Cherokee, Sioux, Kiowa, Blackfoot, Choctaw, and so on.  Another sad similarity is the devastation that European people wrought simply by arriving and bringing  their germs:  smallpox killed over 50% of Sydney’s aboriginal people almost immediately.  In 100 years, over 90% of the indigenous population was lost.  Drug and alcohol abuse were rampant with those who did survive.  It all sounds sadly familiar.

Everyone knows that Australia’s early heritage is tied to its inauspicious beginning as a penal colony.  England needed a place to send its petty thieves and since the US had declared its independence and was no longer taking, and Australia seemed a prime candidate.  Life was tough, and convicts were subject to very harsh treatment and punishments.  The worst offenders got sent to Fort Denison, a small island in the middle of Sydney Harbour.  They were sent there for a week without food or water.  Sharks fill the waters of the harbour, so escape by swimming was not an option.  The island was known as “Pinchgut”, for obvious reasons.  Convicts were also executed on the island and left hanging for YEARS as a warning to the new shiploads of arriving convicts.  The aborigines were shocked by this brutality.  They would have plenty of opportunity to be shocked about European conduct.

One of our favorite stops was Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair.  About every fifth thing in Sydney is named for Lachlan Macquarie, a governor of New South Wales who envisioned a role for the country that went beyond its convict heritage.  He governed from 1810 to 1821 and thought that convicts should be rehabilitated and hold a place in society.  This made him radical for his time.  He is often regarded as a father of Australia.  His wife Elizabeth pined for England, and so the governor ordered his people to  carve a “chair” for her out of  rock.   From her perch, she had a sweeping view of Sydney Harbour and would sit in her chair and wait for the ships to come in, bringing news of England.  It seemed a little sad to me that she would just sit watching for incoming boats in a place of such beauty.  But I do understand homesickness, and this was in the days before Facetime.


Orm told us to “look regal” (whatever that means) as we sat on Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair.  Greg struck his best Napoleon pose.

Orm says that the convict heritage is no longer an Australian family stain but is now a badge of honor.  He likened it to our Daughters of the American Revolution.

We took our lunch at the Sydney Yacht Club, home of the famous Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.  I guess it’s famous.  My yacht is still at the yacht store so I don’t know much about the sport. The fish and chips were good, and Orm told us an excellent fishing story that involved him hauling a fish into the boat that chewed his leg up.  I need to go fishing sometime so I can bend a yarn like he did.

We drove all over the city after lunch. Orm pointed out the rich neighborhoods. We got to see Russell Crowe’s place, among others.  We saw Darling Harbour, Double Bay, Rose Bay,Vaucluse, Watson’s Bay–all of it.  Each vista was more stunning than the last.

A magpie in the tree.

Can you see the chain and posts in the next few beach photos?  That’s the shark net!  They haul it up during swimming season.  I am not sure I would trust that to hold back a great white. I’ve seen “Jaws.”  “You’re gonna need a bigger net.”



Late in the day, we headed for a spectacular cliff area called The Gap.  Orm promised us that whales are often seen from the cliff top, and we were eager for a look.  He told us that the Gap also had an unfortunate reputation as a destination for suicides.  Despondent people often fling themselves from the cliff-side.  If the fall does not kill them, they are swept out into the Pacific, never to be seen again.  The city council has installed guard rails, video surveillance and phones that connect to a suicide hotline, all in the hopes of deterring those who would leap to their death in such a spectacular fashion.  Then Orm stopped the car and said, “Oh, look, I think we have arrived in time to see the 2:30 jumping.”  We had to laugh.
The view from the cliff top was glorious, though we saw only white horses.  No whales.


As we stood atop the cliff, Orm told us my favorite story of the day.  He pointed out an unassuming white house just across the road and told us that until just a few years ago, a man named Don Ritchey lived there.  He was a retired insurance salesman, and he often walked along the cliff top.  If he noticed anyone who looked despondent or troubled, he would approach them, palms up, and ask, “Is there anything I can do for you?”  He would talk to the suicidal person, often inviting them into his home for a cup of tea and a talk.  He is credited with saving over 146 lives over the years.  He had no formal training in suicide prevention.  When asked how he did it, he said, “I was a salesperson, and I was selling life.”  He received the Local Hero Award for Australia in 2011, and the National Australia Day Council said, “His kind words and invitations into his home in times of trouble have made an enormous difference…With such simple actions, Don has saved an extraordinary number of lives.” Don died at the age of 86.  He is known as “The Angel of the Gap.”  Isn’t that just marvelous?  I love hearing about ordinary heroes like this.  It restores my faith in humanity.  Who will take up his mantle on the Gap?  Will the suicide hotline phones they have installed up there be as effective as an old man offering a cup of tea?  Somehow I doubt it.

We stopped at world-famous Bondi Beach.  The surf here is notoriously dangerous.  The surf rescue movement began here, and I guess we have them to thank for that horrible TV series Baywatch.  According to Bill Bryson, in 1938, four large freak waves came in to Bondi beach, each of them more than 20 feet high.  Over 200 people were carried out to sea.  Fortunately there were 50 lifeguards on duty that day and all but six people were saved.  It’s a scary place.  There were very large waves, and brave people were surfing in wetsuits.  We contented ourselves with dipping our toes in the cold, turbulent water.

 

I took about 200 pictures of surfers to get one that I liked.


We drove around many of the old neighborhoods.  I learned a lot of interesting trivia from Orm.  Here’s a favorite:  many of the old buildings had beautiful ironwork railings.  Orm explained that early ships used pig iron bars for ballast.  They unloaded and left the iron and loaded their cargo.  The industrious new residents of Australia melted down the iron and made the railings:  balustrade.

We finished our tour in our neighborhood at the Rocks.  I am fascinated by the bridge because we are going to get to climb it.  I keep looking up to see the people.  In the next picture, you can just see them at the top on the left.  Orm explained that they are required to wear a particular colored jump suit so that they will blend into the iron color of the bridge and thus not distract drivers.

As you can already see, the different tiles do catch the light of the Opera House differently depending on the time of day or night.  The end-of-day light gives it a warm glow.

We took our leave of Orm, giving him a small tip.  Australians do not really have a tipping culture, but he told us that he appreciated it and would have a beer in our name.  We came home to Pier One exhausted and hungry.  I took a bath to try to revive myself, but jet lag is still an issue.  We were proud that we had stayed awake all day in the car with Orm.  A car ride usually puts Genene and Greg right to sleep.  It was a testament to Orm’s quick wit, informative tour and bad jokes that we stayed entertained throughout.  All day long, we kept using the word “awesome” to describe the various things we had seen, and Orm would correct us and say “Ormsome!”  Orm was Ormsome!

That evening, we had a simple request for our concierge:  we wanted good food with less than a five-minute walk.  He recommended Lotus Dumpling Bar, an Asian fusion spot, and we were not disappointed.  We had dumplings, duck pancakes, pepper beef, Kung Pao chicken, and a delicate fried eggplant that was absolutely delightful.  A side note about the Asian cuisine:  from the early 1900s until its final dismantling in the 1970’s, Australia had what has been often characterized as a “White Australia” immigration policy.  Their government declared quite baldly that they did not want any “foreigners” (non Europeans) to immigrate to their country and obtain citizenry.  In the end, Australia needed population and labor, and the policies changed.  There are now a large number of people of all ethnicities in the country, and the country has benefited from the new melting pot.  Their cuisine certainly has.  Sydney is now much like Houston, a place where you can find world cuisine.

We strolled home fat and happy.  It was a long first day of activities but a fun one!

Australia 2016

BLOGGER’S NOTE:  I am having a technical difficulty with the blog, so this will be an experiment.  If it works, I will continue.   If it doesn’t, I’ll put down the blog.  I haven’t had much time for anything recently, certainly not for blogging.  I found to my dismay just now that my favored blogging application, Blogsy, is no longer working and playing well with the latest IOS system on my iPad.  Aren’t upgrades fun?  Anyway, I’m going to try to use the WordPress application.  I’m going to write a little less than I usually do so that I won’t get completely down in the dumps if the time is wasted.    If it works, I’ll keep going.  If not, perhaps I will just give the blog a break.

Friday, July 22, 2016

G’day, mates!  We are off to the land Down Under.  We planned this trip months ago, before Dad died.  Then Greg’s mom fell and broke her shoulder.  My mom had to reschedule a heart ablation procedure that was originally planned for May (when Dad passed), and the rescheduled procedure was just this week.   In other words, we have had a lot of worries about our families.  This trip has been in peril, and we have not had much time to be excited about it.  We thought about cancelling this trip a hundred times, and I wasn’t completely sure we were going until Wednesday of this week.  It’s been a rough year.  I am hoping the vacation has its usual recharging effect on me.

Enough pity talk!  We made it!

We left very early for the airport today at 2:30 PM.  We like to hire a driver so that we can just relax and let him figure out the hideous Houston traffic.  Our Action Limo arrived on time and got us to the airport with loads of time to spare. Prontosaurus (Greg)  strikes again.  Because we have Global Entry, we are supposed to get designated as TSA Pre Check, but something went wrong with that today so we had to go through regular security, which meant taking off half our clothes and getting a body scan.  No big deal.  I hope they enjoyed the view.

I had two margaritas at the Chili’s inside the airport,  and we were feeling in a festive vacation mood by boarding time.  The flight to Dallas was HOT and short and packed.  We arrived with three hour layover and nothing to do, so naturally we sought more food and drink.  We found a little restaurant serving Mediterranean tapas and red wine.  I was starting to get into the mood.  They were playing ESPN on their large screen TV, and  ESPN was playing 25 best games of 2015. We got to see Arkansas beat Auburn again in five overtimes.  I considered that to be a good trip omen.
Boarding was easy and we settled into our Qantas airbus.  After we all got squeezed in, the captain announced  a delay. Engine 4 was having a “minor mechanical issue.”  I really wished he had just told us a white lie on that one.  He assured us that at Qantas they value safety before schedule and they would not go in the air until they knew everything was okay.  We were 40 minutes late taking off. The plane sat on the tarmac in Dallas, and it was hot. After we got into the air, it took a long time to get the plane down to a reasonable temperature.

Gone are the days when we have to entertain Genene.  We all disappeared into our movies. I watched “Muriel’s Wedding.”  I had seen it years ago but thought it would get me in the mood for Australia.  “You’re terrible, Muriel!”  We had a little bit of bad luck in the screaming baby department.   Some poor woman behind us had two kids who were having a contest to see who could caterwaul the loudest.  No worries, mate.  I put in  my earplugs, and they didn’t bother me anymore.  I felt so sorry for that woman.  When I saw her last, the toddler was in the floor (still screaming) at the baggage carousel.

The plane was the largest I’ve ever flown in.  It was an Airbus 380-800, 72.7 meters long with a  79.8 meter wingspan and a cruising speed of 920 km (552 miles)  per hour. She carries up to 484 souls.

I thought Qantas did a good job, though I will say that Korean Air is a bit more service oriented.  All in all, I can’t complain. We all got some sleep, though it’s hard to really get a good rest while curled up like a pretzel.
Saturday, July 23, 2016

Lost in transit as we crossed  the international date line.  We will get our day back on the way back!
Sunday, July 24, 2016

We arrived at Sydney at 6:45 AM or so after over 16 hours in the air. We couldn’t use the ePassport line because Genene was under 16. The regular line wasn’t too long, and we had nothing to declare.  Our  bags were very slow to come off the carousel.  I teased Greg, telling him that when you arrive at airport as early as we do, your bags go all the way up into the bowels of the plane and then come out last.  Well, at least our bags are with us.

We went through a long, tiresome line in customs because we had nothing to declare. We got all the way to the front and the guy told us we were in the wrong line and needed to be in the declare line. I argued with him, thinking there had been some mistake. I told him we had nothing to declare. He said, “It’s stamped with a red stamp so you have to go to the other line.” I told him that this did not make sense. Then he said, “It makes sense to us. You’ve been selected to go through the declarations line.” The light came on for me then. It didn’t matter that we had nothing to declare. They were going to put us through the inspection line anyway. I wish they had told us that instead of leaving it as a mystery.  So we shuffled over to the other line, where we and a lot of other unfortunate people  got sniffed by a dog.  I didn’t see the dog find anything.

Our driver was waiting and admitted that he was starting to get worried about how long it took us to get our bags.    It was a short 20 minute trip to our hotel at Pier One in the heart of Sydney. The hotel literally sits in the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  It’s a redone warehouse and it’s very historic and very hip and trendy.  We fit right in with our matted down bed hair.  We had arranged for an  early check-in. We were greeted with fresh squeezed juice and got through all our preliminaries with ease.  We headed straight to our room  and took hot showers and then went off to explore.

We spent the morning at Market Day in the historic Rocks neighborhood of Sydney.  The wharf and dock area used to be very rough, but gentrification has come.  All of the old brick buildings have been repurposed as apartments and shops.  The atmosphere is lively and fun.

We found a biergarten and sat down for an early lunch and did some people-watching.

What could be better than a big German meal in Sydney?


Market day in the Rocks.

A view of the Sydney Harbour bridge.

First view of the Opera House.  I can tell she’s a diva and will call on me to take many photos of her.


We spent some more time  strolling when suddenly Genene looked at me with panic in her eyes and said that she need to go to bathroom RIGHT NOW.  We had been commenting about how wonderful it was that there were so many public toilets available, but at that moment we couldn’t find a single one.  We started running through the crowd.  We finally found one at the top of a hill and dashed inside, only to find a long queue and only two toilets.  Then a lady came out of one of them and helpfully told us there was no toilet paper.  Genene took one look at me, shook her head and wheeled out of there.  Clearly this was a big job in progress.  We made a mad dash back to our hotel.  I’ll bet we looked just lovely.  I was holding my camera up in one hand so that if I fell, I wouldn’t shatter it.  Genene and Greg were flying down the street ahead of me.  All’s well that ends well.  She made it.  I was waiting for her to come out of the bathroom and told her, “That schnitzel made you shitznel.”  She groaned.  I was pretty proud of that clinker.

We took a long afternoon nap from 2:00 PM to 4:00 Pm and woke up refreshed and ready to see more of Sydney.  At our driver’s suggestion, we took the evening ferry to Darling Harbour. The ferry is public transportation, and the views from it were stunning.

On our last night in Sydney, we are supposed to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunset.  Can you see the people in this photo?


The ferries leave the Rocks from the Circular Quay, seen here.

The views of the bridge and the Opera House from the ferry were stunning, just as our driver had promised.  It always pays to listen to the driver!

We strolled along at Darling Harbour.  It seemed pretty quiet, but this is Sunday night.  We were getting very tired and settled for an okay meal at Italian place. The best part of the evening was riding the ferry.  It is quite brisk at night, and being cold wears you out.  Genene was very tired on way home.  She leaned on me and went to sleep on my shoulder as we rode the ferry.  She’s getting to be a young lady  now, and she wants always to be independent.  It feels good to me when she turns to me for comfort when she is tired.  It reminds me of the little girl I used to have.  That girl is mostly in the rear view mirror now, but I get glimpses.  And I remember….

We were all in bed by 9:30 PM.  I can hear music downstairs but it is not too loud.  It’s a pleasant happy sound.  It has been a good first day!

South Korea: Part 16 and FINAL A Day in Seoul, backtracking (by elephant) and parting thoughts

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Our original concept for the stopover in Seoul was simple: we were using Korean Air, whose hub is in Seoul. Why not get off the airplane, break up the return flights so that we would not be so exhausted, and spend a day and night in Seoul? We probably should have thought a little harder about that “not being exhausted” part. On the day before, we had gotten up before dawn for our aborted sunrise Angkor Wat experience, and the day was busy after that. Our intent was to sleep on the overnight flight between Siem Reap and Seoul, but we did not get in the air until 11:25 PM. The flight was less than five hours in duration, hardly time to get a good night’s sleep. Then there was a two hour time difference between Siem Reap and Seoul, so while we hit the ground at 6:35 AM, it felt like 4:35 AM to us. Not our best plan.

The Koreans let you know right off the bat how the toilets are supposed to work in their modern city.

Another awesome sign that we saw but didn’t get a photograph of said, “Korean War Veterans, you will always be our heroes.”
In our bleary eyed state, we got into the wrong immigration line. By the time we discovered our rookie blunder, an entire planeload of Saudis had gotten in front of us in the foreigner line. Some of the ladies were wearing the full hijab, with nothing but their eyeballs peeking out. South Korean immigration was having none of that, of course, so each lady was having to discreetly uncover her face for the mandatory photo. It took so long that by the time we finally got through, our flight was not even listed on the bag carousel arrival board any more. We had to go to lost and found to collect our bags.

We met our guide, a lovely lady whose “western handle” was Inis, and began our tour immediately. She told us that our hotel would not be ready until mid-afternoon so we had some time to kill. Our itinerary had listed five different activities, but we knew right off the bat that this would be too ambitious. We asked her to explain them in more detail and we picked our top three.

The drive from Incheon Airport into the heart of Seoul took about an hour. Ines could see that we were fried, so she let us ride into town in silence. Genene put her head down and caught a few zzz’s. I think Greg and I did the same. We stopped first at a Starbucks-like coffee shop in the central city and got some strong coffee and pastries. We were surprised to find that English is not as commonly spoken here as it is in Thailand and Cambodia, but there was English on the posted menus. We were able to point at what we wanted and soon the caffeine was coursing through our veins. Even Genene got a cup of java.

Our first tourist stop was Cheongye Plaza, located at the starting point of the “restored” Cheonggyecheon Stream. The public space is actually an urban renewal project. After the Korean War, this area developed so rapidly that the original stream was covered up by transportation infrastructure. The government spent over $900 million to “rebuild” the dried-up stream, pumping water from the Han River up to the new headwater. The water flows back down to the Han, the ultimate in recycling. The project was very controversial when it opened in 2005 but has become a popular meeting place and recreational area for Korean people. It’s a bit like their version of Memorial Park, a place to stroll and run, to see and be seen.

 

22 bridges span the stream, and some of them are quite old. We walked underneath Gwangtonggyo Bridge, which was one of the most important and busiest bridges in Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty when markets could be found lining both sides. Construction of the bridge began in 1410 by King Taejong, who used the stones from the dismantled tomb of his stepmother Queen Sindeok. His disrespect of her tomb was intentional: he was repaying her for supporting her son–his half-brother– against King Taejong for the throne. King Taejong had her demoted posthumously from second wife to royal concubine. The stones with the visible carvings are from Queen Sindeok’s tomb.
Seoul is large and has a very modern feel, with its tall, metal skyscrapers. Over 10 million people live here. It makes Houston look like a quaint little village.
The Spring sculpture in the plaza put me in the mind of a seashell.

 

Our second stop was Gyeongbok Palace, where we were just in time to see the ceremonial changing of the guard. The palace was originally built by the first Yi Dynasty King, Taejo (circa 1395), and it served as a royal residence for nearly 200 years. Sadly, the original palace was destroyed by fire in the late 1500’s, and the area was abandoned until the 1800’s, when it was rebuilt. The Japanese came along in the early 20th century and wrecked it again, but the Koreans are gradually restoring the palace complex buildings to their original forms and locations.

There is no more monarchy, and South Korea is a constitutional republic, complete with three branches of government and a president. The guard changing ceremony is strictly ceremonial. It was colorful and beautiful on this fine morning.

This guy really made this shell sing!
The throne where the king would have sat when receiving guests at the palace.
The ceiling was painted ornately.
The dragon image was recessed into the ceiling in the middle of the palace. This dragon has seven claws, more than a Chinese imperial dragon. Was the Korean king trying to play a little game of one-up-you?
The Korean tiger looks more whimsical than some of his Thai or Cambodian counterparts.
Ines told us the story of the nobleman who was annoyed at never having been invited to the king’s parties in the reflecting pool area. He climbed the fence at night to enjoy the beautiful view for himself and was busted by the king. The king asked the nobleman why he should not be put to death on the spot. The nobleman did not have a great response, but he did have a parlor trick: he had memorized a 300 page book, which he recited word for word to the king. The king listened to the entire book and decided to make the man an advisor to his court. It’s always good to have an impressive trick up your sleeve.
We stopped at the Chinese zodiac and found our fortunes. Genene was born in the year of the monkey.
Greg is a dragon.
I am, of course, a snake. (Aren’t all lawyers snakes?)
We took a brief tour of the Korean Folk Museum, where we learned about the ancient customs of the Korean people.
A marriage bed:
When a child turns one year old, a big party is held. Various items are set out before the child, who is then allowed to pick: grab the book and junior is going to be a lawyer; grab the coins and his destiny is a banker; and so on. The ancient tradition continues today, only today’s child uses a computer mouse to scroll around and point to his or her future profession. It’s all in good fun these days.
Our third stop of the day was the antique market, an open air street market filled with souvenir shopping opportunities. We strolled up and down the street, but nothing spoke to us so we left Seoul empty handed, as far as souvenirs go.

Some young people had a display of “One Dream One Korea”, their dream for the reunification of the Koreas. They asked us to leave our handprints and a message. We left them our best wishes from the US. We hope they achieve their lofty goal, though it seems unlikely in this political climate.

At the entrance to the market, the young people stood with their “One Dream One Korea” placards, and a map of Korea was laid out on the ground. Any time a person walked across the map, they cheered and cheered.
These men were making a dessert confection from spun honey. The honey is pulled until it is in thin threads, much like cotton candy. Then almonds or other nuts are folded into the candy to make the dessert. We were headed to lunch, so we did not try any. I wish we had.
Ines took us to a real bibimbap restaurant, where the Korean staple was served in hot stone bowls.
The meal came with soup, many vegetable sides and kimchi, the traditional spicy sour fermented vegetable dish. This picture of Genene is very unflattering, but the food looks good!
After lunch, we were the walking dead. Our bellies were full of hot food, and we were running on four hours of sleep. All we wanted was to find a bed and have a nap. Ines could see our despair and called the hotel again. They agreed that we could check in at 2:30, so we needed one small after-lunch distraction. Ines had just the thing. She wanted to show us Seoul’s newest architectural wonder, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, also called the DDP. The DDP is a major urban development landmark designed by Iraqi British architect Zaha Hadid and Korean studio Samoo. It’s all curves with a futuristic design. Some people think it looks like a spaceship. Others liken it to a funhouse. Each of the exterior panels is unique in size and shape and had to be manufactured specially for the space. Like the rebuilt stream, this project was controversial due to its cost and scope. It’s done now though, and the South Koreans are proud of the results. The New York Times featured the DDP prominently in a recent article about Seoul entitled “52 Places to See in 2015.” I felt very trendy just being there! It has 900,000 square feet of exhibit space and is used for design and art exhibitions.
 
Genene particularly enjoyed the interior of the DDP. There were many winding staircases and hallways, and they had many prototypes of chairs to sit in. Some were suitable to spin around in. Others could be lounged in. Genene tried them all.

At long last, Ines got word that our hotel room was ready. I hated that we were not doing this great modern city justice, but we were all just exhausted and wanted a nap. We were staying near the DDP at the Shilla, and it took only a few minutes to arrive. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stay in the Presidential Suite at the Shilla when they are in Seoul. We are not so fancy: ordinary people get an ordinary room.

The lobby area at the Shilla had at least 100 people in it, and I am not exaggerating. I felt like I had arrived late to the AWBD summer conference check-in. We noticed that there was a man stationed at each of the revolving doors with a camera pointed at everyone walking in. Turns out the cameras were infrared scanners. South Korea has had an outbreak of the viral disease Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and the hotel was taking no chances. If the camera picked up the fact that someone had fever, they weren’t getting into the hotel. I thought it was a sensible precaution.

Ines helped us to navigate through the checkin, and we were soon in our nicely appointed room. Ines gave us some advice on where to have dinner and told us that she would see us in the morning and take us to the airport. She took leave of her walking dead clients.

We wasted no time taking a shower and getting into our skivvies. We discovered to our delight that our room had one of those fancy Korean Smartlets, also known as the smart toilet. It had more buttons than an Amish woman’s dress.

What do they all mean? Who knows?
The inside of the toilet was also lighted. Do I really need that?
I was afraid to use anything other than the basic bidet function on the pot. After all, I really didn’t want to bare my backside and press a mystery button. What if it grabbed me? Genene was much more adventurous. She is, after all, of the younger generation. Technology doesn’t frighten her; it emboldens her. Before long, she had most of the functions figured out, including the adjustable temperature of the bidet water, the “reach” of the bidet arm, and the like. It was hilarious to listen to her in the bathroom, giggling and squealing as she pressed each button. My favorite moment was when she exclaimed, “Mom, it’s blowdrying my butthole!!!” (Sorry, was that too much information?)
Anyway, we took a nice long nap and awoke in the late day, refreshed and, as usual for the Gordons, hungry. We were on the hunt (with our clean and blowdried backsides) for either Korean barbeque or fried chicken. Seoul is known for both. We chose barbecue at Song Won, a neighborhood restaurant down the hill from the Shilla. Again, we found that no English was spoken, but the menus had English words and, more importantly, pictures. We were able to make ourselves understood with gestures.
Greg had the Kloud beer while the charcoals glowed on the table.
Our waitress put the savory meat on the grill right in front of us, and the delightful side dishes came soon after.
We had not had much red meat in Cambodia or Thailand, and I guess we must have been missing it because we went to town on this meal. It was the highlight of our short stay in Seoul. We were proud of ourselves for finding a good restaurant and navigating the menu. We figured that any place that had been in busy since 1979 was probably good!
We strolled back through the neighborhood.
There was a steep flight of stairs back up the hillside to our hotel, and we stopped at the top to get this shot.

This was the view from our room.

We sat out our airplane traveling clothes and gathered our gear. Tomorrow we return to reality.

 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Our day began early. Inis and the driver met us at the hotel at 6:00 AM. We would have to get breakfast in the airport. The return trip to Incheon Airport took about an hour, and we passed over the mudflats. Ines described General Douglas MacArthur’s bold move during the Korean War to launch an amphibious attack at Incheon. Other UN generals expressed serious misgivings, because Incheon’s terrain was unforgiving. The entrances to Incheon were narrow and therefore easily mined. The water became mudflats during low tide and could easily trap a vessel. MacArthur explained that because the area was so heavily defended, the enemy would not expect an attack there. A victory in this northern strong point would cut off North Korean supply and communication lines, and a brutal winter campaign could be avoided. MacArthur got his way, and the attack was a success. Seoul was eventually recaptured by the South after a protracted land battle. Everyone knows how the story ends: with two Koreas. Those in the South are grateful to MacArthur that they have their democracy because without the battle at Incheon, the North Koreans might have won it all.

During some part of her discussion, Ines had mentioned “our brothers in the North.” Greg questioned her about this, saying: “Do you really think of them as your brothers?” Her answer was unwavering and unequivocal: “Oh yes, they are, quite literally, our brothers and sisters. Their government is stupid, and they are its victims, but they are our people.” She went on to describe, in moving detail, the issue of family separation between North and South Korea. I had never thought about this before. North and South Korea are technically not at peace; all these years later, they are at “cease fire.” When the borders closed between the two countries, entire families were cruelly separated. Husbands who had gone south for work and left their wives and children back north could not return. Siblings were separated from each other. Sons and daughters were separated from their parents. These people have not seen their families since the early 1950s! An effort was undertaken a few years ago to schedule family reunions. The government of North Korea is the sticking point. When the program began, 130,000 people applied for the chance at a family reunion. Getting the North Korean government to agree to a reunion is tricky, so they do not occur even once a year. When they do, the North Korean government grants only 100 applications. The reunion must take place in North Korea, for obvious reasons. If the good citizens of the North ever got the opportunity to go South, they might not go back. Ines explained that they know from intelligence that those families from the North who are selected are carefully “trained” in what to say and how to act. They must leave at least 1/3 of the food that is offered to them (to illustrate that they are not starving). They learn to repeat “I love it in North Korea.” They are given a new suit to wear so that they look presentable. Meetings are in large hotel banquet hall settings and are often awkward because the North Koreans know they are being watched by their government and even filmed. The people are getting very old, and their parting wish is often something along these lines: “Take care of yourself so that you can live until we can see each other again, when our country is one.” Ines showed us some youtube videos of the reunions, and they are heartbreaking to watch. The family members, now in their 80’s and 90’s, are together for a few hours before they are separated again, and they embrace and sob pitifully.

For the third time on this trip, I had tears in my eyes. I thought I wasn’t a crier! Greg cries at the Folger’s coffee Christmas commercial, so he was a complete goner. The tears were rolling down his face. As we got to the airport, Ines apologized for telling us such a sad story. We told her it was a perfect story. We come to foreign countries to learn about the people, whose lives are often so different from our own. The stories are not always happy ones, but they are real and meaningful.

The Korean Air representative in Siem Reap had given us a set of boarding passes for Seoul to Houston, and this turned out to be a huge boon. The checkin line was massive, but because we were already checked in, we got to go straight to the bag check line, which was much more manageable. Ines waited with us until we got the bags dropped. Incheon uses a slightly different procedure for checking bags. I am accustomed to simply dropping bags off and then racing toward the xray machines and gates. Incheon asks that you wait in a separate area for 5 minutes until your checked bags are inspected. In this way, if they find something they need to discuss with you in your checked bags, you are still close by. We waited the 5 minutes, and our name was not called, so Ines told us it was fine to proceed on to the gate.

While we waited, we commented to Ines on how well we had been treated by Korean Air and how beautiful their flight attendants are. She verified my suspicions: the ladies are selected based upon a beauty and style standard. They must wear their uniforms and their hair a certain way until they get inside their own home. The women are highly sought after by the men in South Korea, and it is a big brag if your girlfriend is an attendant for Korean Air. Boyfriends must take their women to and from the airport, and Ines says you can see the gaggles of men waiting outside. If the men do not treat their Korean Air women right, they can be “easily replaced.”

We said our goodbyes, and she taught Genene the Korean word for it. We made it to the gate in time for some pastries and hot coffee. The flight back was uneventful. We had another chance for bibimbop, which Greg took but I passed on. I had it in Seoul!

We left Seoul at 9:30 AM on Monday morning and after 13+ hours of flying, we arrived in Houston at 8:30 AM on Monday. We got back before we left! Global Entry was a breeze, although we got diverted to Agriculture because we disclosed that we had been in contact with farm animals. The Agriculture department was dead on Monday morning, and it took only a little time for them to xray our bags to make sure we weren’t bringing in a dead chicken or a pig’s foot. We stepped out into the Houston heat (which seemed like nothing) and grabbed an Uber ride from a young man who looked like he had been chugging Red Bull all night. He drove well though, and his car was clean and air conditioned. I have found Uber rides to be much superior to cab rides in Houston. I have been on many dangerous, hot, careening cab rides in our fair city, and Uber seems tame in comparison. It’s cheaper too!

We were home by midmorning, and Nala the wonderdog greeted us with squeals and whines of delight. The cats meowed incessantly and rubbed around our legs. I spent the rest of the day doing laundry, deleting or managing the 1300 work emails that came in while I was gone, and preparing for work. I will go in tomorrow morning and start “being real” again.

BACKTRACKING ON THE ELEPHANTS

I usually take my blogs in chronological order, but I have to go back to the elephant camp for a moment. Thai Elephant Camp had a photographer following us on our rides, and at the end we got a fully loaded DVD. I blog from an iPad, so I did not have access to the images until we returned stateside. Some of them are really good, so I must share. Also, because I am the photographer, I do not appear in the blog much, so these photos are a special treat for me (and my parents).

Here’s our Day 1 crew. I’ll leave you to identify the honeymooners, the French and the California boys.

When I die, I want one of these next three pictures sitting on my casket at the funeral!
At the lunch stop on Day 1:
Elephant kisses:
Mud spa:
We rubbed this elephant stem to stern with the black mud. Thai Elephant Home elephants have the best skin in Thailand.
When the guides showed the photos to all of us after the ride, these next two were particular favorites, eliciting much laughter from our group. I had no idea I was making those faces. I look like Grumpy Cat.
The mahouts made leaf hats for us. Greg looked particularly fetching in his.
My little girl is not so little any more.
I posted this one on Facebook, and several people have already said it should make the family Christmas card.
This last shot was taken just after our last ride. You can see the elephants walking away, back down to the paddock. You cannot see–but they are there–the tears in my eyes.

 

PARTING THOUGHTS:

What more can I say? A 16 part blog with hundreds of photos–maybe I should just shut up.

No way! It’s time for random observations.

Things that tickle: elephant kisses and fish spas.

Immigration officials can ruin your day in a heartbeat.

The man reading the paper is always the boss.

Tea that is designed to “restore balance” to your body will taste like crap.

Planting rice is backbreaking work.

Smart toilets are fun!

Thai massages hurt.

A Bangkok driver needs 10 eyes.

An elephant makes a big poop.

Men can go to war over a two-foot tall jade statue.

Red ants and beef are delicious.

Roaches crawling on your feet are not fun.

Mangosteens are the second best fruit in the world, right behind the Arkansas Elberta peach.

It’s Myanmar, not Burma!

I would be remiss if I did not mention our travel agents at Asia Transpacific Journeys. We decided to interview them after researching on the internet. We exchanged emails and had one phone conversation with their consultant, Jen Boyd. She asked us detailed questions about what kind of travelers we are and what our expectations were. After that, she produced the initial itinerary, which wowed us immediately. It was just what we wanted! We never interviewed any other companies. When someone “gets you,” you go with it! Their services were first rate in every way. We never had to wonder what was going to happen next. Every guide and driver showed up on time and in place. If you want professionals to customize a journey to Asia for you, I recommend them whole-heartedly. http://www.asiatranspacific.com/

Genene is getting ready to start middle school in two days. She is going to Awty International School, which will be a big sea-change from life at our local public elementary school where she happily spent the last six years. Awty is popular with the expat community, and people from more than 50 nations attend the school. I hope Genene’s travels will stand her in good stead at Awty. We are all very nervous and excited about the changes. Can vacation help with education? I know it certainly is a lot of fun, but maybe she is learning something too, if only how to say hello in several languages.

Back to our journey for just a moment: the people we met along the way were so friendly and warm. In particular, the Cambodians keep sticking in my mind. How can they greet everyone with such warm, friendly and open faces when the scar of genocide is still so fresh? They speak of it openly, in the hope that it can never happen again. I hope and pray they are right.

Will I buy another shirt made in Thailand? I’m sure that I will, but I will never do it again without thinking of the man who sews them day in and day out.

As for Amparo and Polo, “We’ll always have Siem Reap.” (I love Casablanca.)

I hope that someday Korea can be one so that all the torn families can be reunited.

I hope that Borin gets his house.

I hope that TJ remembers me when I come to ride her again.

Sawadee kha!

 

Cambodia: Part 15 Angkor Wat and Tonle Sap and saying goodbye

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Our schedule called for sunrise at Angkor Wat, and we were excited that the big day had finally arrived. Unfortunately, no one told the weatherman about our excitement. We awoke at 4:30 AM to a driving rain, complete with thunder and lightning. We had no idea what our guide would do so we continued getting dressed so that we could be ready to depart by 5:00 AM. Ten minutes before five, Borin called and told us to go back to bed. It was a frog-strangler, and there was no point in getting out in it. The sunrise would not be visible, and it was lightning. We made a new plan. He told us we would reconvene after breakfast at 8:00 AM and head straight over. We were disappointed not to see the iconic sunrise at Angkor Wat, but we knew we had come to Cambodia in the monsoon season. This is not the high season for tourists in Thailand and Cambodia, but it’s when we could come. With Genene in school, we have to take our vacations in the summer. The off season does have its charms. Crowds are not as large. The afternoon rain cools things down. Everything is very green. Anyway, we weren’t going out in monsoon rains, so we shucked off our clothes and went back to bed. Genene was happy to do so. When she was younger, she popped out of bed every morning with the sun. She’s not quite a teenager now, but she seems to require sleep like one.

After breakfast at the hotel, Borin and the driver picked us up on the dot at 8. The rain had stopped, so our fortunes were improving. On the way out of town, we passed by the Royal Gardens in the heart of Siem Reap. Borin had the driver stop so that he could show us the thousands of fruit bats hanging from the trees. The trees looked alive with the squirming creatures, and you could hear the squealing, squeaking noise quite clearly from the ground. This photo is not great because my camera lens was completely fogged up from the humid morning. Most days started this way. The camera stayed in nice air conditioned comfort all night (as did we), and when I took the lens camp off each morning, I had to wait about 5-7 minutes for the condensation to dissipate.

It took only a few minutes to get to Angkor Wat, and we already had our three-day pass to the monuments so we drove right up to the entrance. We were in the thick of things with the Saturday tourists, but Angkor Wat is so large it can accomodate a crowd. In fact, by some measures, it is the largest religious complex in the world. The temple complex is rectangular, and the dimensions are 0.9 miles by 0.8 miles. The central sandstone monument occupies only 5% of that area. The rest of the area within the moat and wall is today largely forested. Archeologists are using LIDAR data in Cambodia and have determined that the inner city area was once covered by wooden galleries and pavilions, long since reclaimed by the jungle.

The moat is 620 feet wide, and the excavated soil was used to make the imposing mountain temple. Unlike other Khmer wats, Angkor Wat faces west into the setting sun. There are several theories about why this was done: one theory holds that it was faced toward the former capital city. Another theory holds that the temple was dedicated to Vishnu, who is sometimes associated with the west. The most commonly accepted theory is that King Suryavarman II, who commissioned the temple, built it as his tomb or funerary. Thus it would face west toward the setting sun, symbolizing his death. Its western orientation is what makes the sunrise visit so attractive to photographers.

We approached from the west, climbing the steps of the cross-shaped naga terrace and onto the causeway.

Angkor Wat represents the height of Angkor civilization. King Suryavarman II ruled from 1112 to 1152, and the elaborate temple was built during his reign. According to Borin, the Angkor Wat complex took only 37 years to build. It is a source of great pride to the Cambodian people, and an image of Angkor Wat appears on their national flag.

The building survived the country’s civil strife with a few bullet holes.

Meet the 8-armed standing Vishnu, to whom the temple is dedicated. He is an object of veneration for Cambodians even today. He is locally known as Ta Reach.
Again, I was amazed at the stone work. Note that there is no room to slip in even a credit card. Also note that some ding-dongs have carved their names and initials into the soft stone. Morons are everywhere.
Some early efforts at restoration using concrete are clearly visible.
A library on the grounds:
The light was hazy, which frustrated me as a photographer because it sometimes made capturing the colors challenging. I turned this image into a black and white to try to compensate.
Family photo:
The galleries and their bas-relief carvings are stunning in scope and intricacy.
Another battlefield scene:
It’s never a good day when you get your face bitten off by a monkey (I hate it when that happens!):
This beautiful devata is carved into the wall panel. Can you see that she is baring her teeth? That is apparently rather unusual.
Another battle scene:
Detail upon detail upon detail, carved into the soft stone. How many hours of labor must have gone into these galleries? Who were the artists? Only their work remains.
As we toured the galleries, the sun came out and the tourists prowled the terraces.
We can tell that this is a king for several reasons: the parasols over his head indicate royalty. He is carved larger than the surrounding people. And he’s getting fanned. An ordinary guy never gets fanned.
Owls hidden in the leaves of the trees:
Birds and deer:
What happens when the sculptor makes an error? The chunk is removed, and a new carving is made and popped into place.
Unfortunately, as Borin explained, for many years Angkor Wat was “unsupervised.” Peasants sometimes believed that these replaced areas were a hiding place for jewels, and they would pop them out. Holes like this are visible in several places throughout the galleries.
In this photo, you can see some damage from water intrusion. Maintaining Angkor Wat and preventing its deterioration is an ongoing, large-scale project that requires the cooperation of UNESCO, Cambodia, and the governments of several other countries.
Borin explains a scene from the gallery:
The next set of bas-relief will stay in my memory forever because of how Borin related them to Cambodia today. The so-called Judgment of Yama depicts the three levels of human existence: on the top are the 37 heavens, filled with palaces, princes, princesses, and good times. In the middle is earth, where we all live. At the bottom are 32 hells, filled with starving people being tormented by devils.
This is Yama, judge of the dead. He sends the souls to various stops between reincarnations. This version of hell was much scarier and more graphic than the scene we saw on the mural in Thailand.
Borin then made the story real. “We had our own hell here in Cambodia,” he said. He told us about the Khmer Rouge genocide and the years of hell that his country endured. When the United States declared victory, fired up the heicopters and left Vietnam in 1975, they left a power vacuum in the entire region, and Cambodia was already in turmoil. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge were ready and waiting. Pol Pot was educated in Paris and there met radical Marxist revolutionists. His version of communism was more than radical: it was maniacal and brutal. Pol Pot imagined that Cambodia could be transformed into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. The entire population of Phnom Penh and other provincial towns was marched into the countryside to work as slaves. Even the sick, old and children were not spared. Educated people in particular were feared and mistrusted and were often executed on the spot. Disobedience meant instant death. Pol Pot declared Year Zero, abolished the currency and closed the post offices. The country cut itself off from the world, and for three years, eight months, and 20 days, the Khmer Rouge conducted its bloody genocide in the so-called “killing fields” of Cambodia. Finally, in 1979, the Vietnamese invaded, toppling Pol Pot’s regime, though he lived for many years in the countryside. When it was over, 3 million people were dead. Borin told us that every family in Cambodia was touched. His father had five brothers and sisters but was the only sibling in his family who survived. His mother lost her uncle and his entire family. He explained that you don’t see many old people in the country, because so many of them were killed. The country is at peace now, though many younger people think the current prime minister has been in power too long. Over 40% of the current population is under 16. More changes are coming to the country. I hope they will be peaceful.
The ancient scenes of torture in the gallery walls now seem contemporary.
Hand and feet bound together:
Spikes driven into stretched bodies:
Bodies beaten and tortured:
Well, that was depressing. We sat down for a few minutes in one of the shaded galleries, drank some water and gathered our thoughts. There was still a lot more to see.

Though highly skilled, the Khmer architects did not discover the self-supporting arch that the Romans used. They used corbelling to span the spaces, placing successive blocks 1/4 to 1/3 of their length projecting inward until the two sides met. Consequently, arches are narrow, and the roof is heavy.

We saw several renditions of this next mural throughout the Angkor complex, and even in Thailand. It’s called “Churning the Ocean of Milk.” The gods lined up on one side and the demons on the other. Vishnu riding on a tortoise occupied the center spot and acted as the referee. They pulled on the snake named Vasuki, who was coiled around Mount Mahendra. Their goal was to churn the ocean until the amrita, the nectar of life, came up. Those who drink it would have immortal life. (Is that you, Indiana Jones?) A ton of other creatures, good and bad, came up from the ocean’s depths during the churning. In the end, Vishnu abandoned his neutrality and helped out the gods. I think a couple of the demons stole a drink or two.
Churn!
Steady, boys!
Churn!
 
The haze burned off and the sky turned blue.
I think these are apsaras, the dancers. To me, it is difficult to tell them from devatas. The devata is a temple guardian, while the apsaras are dancers. If she looks like she’s gonna bust a move, she’s an apsara.
We waited in line to climb to the very top tower. Only a certain number of people can be at the top at once, so the guides do not typically accompany their charges. Borin had prepared us well, because only those who are dressed appropriately are allowed to go. We saw the guards walking the line and telling many ladies in shorts, “Not permitted.” One lady tried to tie a shawl around her waist to make a skirt, and the guide said, “Not possible.” Our knees and shoulders were respectfully hidden, and the guards didn’t give us a second look. Children under 12 were not permitted, but Borin told us to say nothing about Genene. He figured she could make it through. I am happy to say that while her height cost us $2 and some heartache at immigration when we entered the country, we got karmic repayment today. The officials didn’t ask a question or bat an eye. They gave her a badge and sent her along with us up the steep stairs.
The views from the top:
 
 
Nearly all the people you can see seated below in this photo are the tour guides waiting for their charges to come back down from the top:
I think she’s a devata. You can see clearly that once upon a time, these walls had color.
Devata or apsara? Not sure, but I do know that men the world around like big, bare boobs.
We descended the steep stairs and found Borin waiting for us, just where he said he would be.
Hey, ladies!
This was once known as the Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas, though few remain today.
We finished our tour, exhausted, after about four hours. We barely scratched the surface. We could have spent days just wandering around marveling at the sculpture, the structure, the grounds.
Family photo:
We watched these four monkeys playing on the ballustrades.
This guy obviously stole somebody’s lunch and was enjoying himself.
I had no desire to pet him. Look at those nasty, sharp teeth!
We took a couple of last long looks and put Angkor Wat in our rearview mirror.
 
Throughout this vacation, it has been hot and sticky, and today was no exception. Genene often wallows me. She leans on me; she hugs my neck; she holds my hand. I confess that sometimes I am annoyed, mostly because it is so very hot. Each time I think of snapping at her and telling her to stand up straight, I remind myself that soon enough, she will reach for me no more. She will be grown and gone. I try to be the good mom and let her wallow!

Borin took us back into Siem Reap for lunch at a local restaurant. Our waiter loved practicing his English with us. In fact, he stood at our table for much of the meal, asking us questions and talking to us. One time, another waitress came and shooed him away but he found his way back. He told us that he has used Google to teach himself enough French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and English so that he could communicate with all the tourist customers. I admired his industry. He also wanted us to know that he does not like Cambodia’s prime minister and all the young people want change. Their prime minister has been in power since 1998, and elections are held, though they are not free and fair. Change is coming to Cambodia. I am not sure what variety.

I’ll just have one beer with lunch:

I ordered the whole catfish. It looks a little different from the Fish Bowl version in Ashdown, Arkansas.
Genene ordered a whole quail with her fried rice.

 

After lunch, we went for an afternoon tour of Tonle Sap, the largest lake in southeast Asia. The freshwater lake is innundated every year by the Mekong River. The Tonle Sap River is 75 miles long and connects the lake to the Mekong. During the monsoon season, the Mekong River grows larger and feeds water down the Tonle Sap River and into the lake. During the dry season, the Tonle Sap River reverses course and drains the lake. The lake is 1,000 square miles during the dry season and swells to 6,200 square miles. The rich sediment pouring in with the river provided opportunities for farming to the Angkor people 1,000 years ago and still does so today. The river brings fish as well.

There are floating villages along the banks of the Tonle Sap, and the villages must move as the lake moves.

We caught one of these boats and headed out onto the water.

We could see the rain coming in.
People fished everywhere. We also saw people bathing in the water and swimming. Borin said that if he or we jumped into the water, we would be sick within a matter of days because these people use it for everything, including their toilet.
Homes were modest. All of them had generators and TV antennas.
Swimming:
I’m glad we are getting this cleared up!
Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.
Hey, little guy!
I found this to be interesting. Someone in this house obviously likes to garden. Amid the floating shacks-some might even say squalor–the flowers bloom.
We could not see the far shore, and the monsoon season is just beginning. Tonle Sap will get a lot bigger.
He is happy any time we are on water.
We stopped at a floating market of sorts. You can buy a catfish from this container….
…and toss it into this one!
It ends badly for the crocodiles.
Before we made it back to the dock, the skies opened up with a drenching rain. The locals kept right on fishing. When you stay wet all day, I guess a little rain does not slow you down.
When we boarded the boat, someone had snapped our pictures. When we got off, they were waiting for us with a cheesy Angkor Wat/Angkor Thom plate with our photos stuck on it. I was not tempted, but Genene’s picture actually looked cute so we bought it. Borin thought we overpaid scandalously and should have gotten all three plates for the $10 we paid for the one.

Borin returned us to our hotel in the late afternoon. Our flight will leave at 11:25 PM (ugh!) so he will be back to pick us at 9:00 PM. The hotel staff welcomed us “home” for the last time with the cold, moist towels. The manager came forward, called us all by name, and asked us what we had seen and done. I guess he couldn’t really cope with Genene’s first name, so he called her by her middle name: “Katherine, how was your day? Did you see Angkor Wat?” At first, Genene was looking around because she wasn’t sure he was talking to her. I loved the staff there. They were so attentive and friendly.

As we walked up our stairs, the little souvenir plate slipped out of Genene’s hands and crashed to the floor, breaking into a dozen pieces. In that moment, I saw my little baby girl again. Her eyes brimmed with tears, and mine did too. It was just a piece of junk, but she really liked it. I hugged her in the stairway and told her I was sorry…and then, just like that, the little baby was gone. Her face cleared, and she began to pick up the pieces. “Maybe Dad can glue it together.” I remember wishing for her to be more grown up. Now sometimes, I wish she were my baby again.

We got most of our packing done. It had been a long day, starting with the aborted sunrise wakeup. We were tired and decided to take dinner in the hotel. We had not dined with them except for breakfast. Dinner was delightful, and we even ordered desserts.

Borin and the driver arrived right on time at 9:00 PM, and we were off to the airport. My last memory of the Shinta Mani was of the manager and all footmen lined up at the entry, their heads bowed and hands clasped respectfully in the Sampeah until we pulled away and were out of sight.

Borin told us he had no gift for us except for our memories. That will be enough. He asked if we would remember him and I assured him that we certainly would. He wanted to know when we would be back. I told him honestly that I didn’t know but I hoped it would be sooner rather than later. He said, “I would love to visit you in America, but it is not possible. I will be here when you return. Perhaps a little older. Perhaps I will have a home of my own by then.” I hope that he does.

We got to the airport within a half hour, and Borin took us as far as he could and we said our goodbyes and handed him his tip. We started inside, and it just didn’t feel right. We turned back around and went back to hug him. (Greg settled for the manly handshake, but Genene and I hugged him long and hard.) I cried when we left the elephants. I cried when we left Borin. He is a special young man. I hope his dreams of being a lawyer and having a place of his own do come true.

We are taking the red-eye to Seoul, where we have one more day and night of exploration before we must return to Houston. South Korea, here we come!